Driving Tests for Foreign Residents in Japan

The following article was written in 1999 and was read on air by NHK English Radio.  It’s been slightly modified to “protect the innocent” and we hope you find it enjoyable.

Friends of mine received Japanese Driver’s License with an eye test and a smile   when I first arrived in Japan.  Since  that  time,  a  growing Foreign  Resident  Population and more  importantly,  a  visible  increase  in  traffic  accidents  involving  Foreign  Residents  has  caused  rules  to  change.  Little did I know that when both  legal  and  practical reasons  forced  me   to  abandon  my International  License  and  apply for my Japanese License, that it would turn into a nightmare lasting three days.

The preparation for   the application and subsequent test was simple.   We  sent  copies  of   my   present  license  to   the   Japan  Automobile  Association  for  Official  Translation.   On  advice  from  a  friend  we  also  obtained  an  official  record  displaying  my  driving  history  from  the  Province  Of  British  Columbia,  Canada.  The  receptionist  at  the  Tokyo  Motor  Vehicle  Testing  Center  accepted  my  paperwork,  reviewed  it  and   troubles  started.  “You  have  to  prove  that  you  lived  in  Canada  for  six  months  after  receiving  your  license.  Do you have a passport from 1976?”   Actually,  my  first  ever  Passport  went  through  a  wash  back  in   Canada  and  wasn’t  worth  keeping.  I  decided  to  keep  quiet  while  the  receptionist  and  her  manager  discussed  the  issue.  After  about  fifteen  minutes  they  decide  to   sign  off  on  the  paper  work  and  send  me  on  to   stage  two. (I was very lucky.  Often people spend months gathering red tape from their Government’s Motor Vehicle Office only to be refused on another hidden technicality.)

The   next step was an eye test.  It took less than fifteen seconds. Candidates looked through a window and answered one question.  “Which way is the arrow pointing?”    Left.  “Correct.  Now, what color’s this pencil?”  Red.  “Correct.”  The  Police  Women  stamped  my  Official  Test  Record  and  it  was  on  to  stage  three.

We walked down the corridor and entered the Written Test Hall.  The security was impressive.  Two  Policemen  came in  with  a  locked  box  and  pulled  out  a  test  each  for  the  three  applicants.   The tests were a true and false format and consisted of ten questions. The  applicant  next  to  me  wrote  hers  in  Japanese,  the  fellow  to  the  right,  Chinese,  and  I  received   the  English  Language  version.    It included questions phrased in Japanese English that left you guessing.  "Don't you  drive  ahead  of   an  Emergency  Vehicle  through   an  intersection  when  you're  in  a  hurry"?  Yes or No.

We  all  made  the  minimum requirement of seven  correct  answers  and  passed  the  test.  The  Policemen  congratulated  us  and  immediately  assigned  us  a  date  and  time  for  our  Practical  Driving  Test.  “Tomorrow Morning.”  We were all to report on Wednesday at 8 a.m...  Prior  to  our  dismissal  we  were  given  a  test  map  and  general  rules  pertaining  to  the  Practical  Driving  Test.  The list  included  rules  such  as “follow  all  instructions  of  the  Testing  Officer,  accidents  result  in  failure  followed by  immediate  termination  of   test,  and   excessive  driving  errors  will  result  in   immediate  failure  again followed by termination  of   test.”   There  was  other  information  with   further  rules  and  helpful  hints  in  the  package  that  should  have  been  read  more  carefully.

The next morning I rose early   feeling excited and nervous.  The  traffic  wasn’t  bad,   parking  spots  were  plenty  and  I the  Eager  Beaver  arrived  first  in  line  to  receive  his  test  number.  In  fact,  I  received  “test  number  one”   which  meant  the earliest start,  passing  and  returning  home  in time for lunch.  (What a misconception.)  I  found  out  several  important  facts  about  the  testing  procedure  my  first  time  through  it.  (It was a classic dress rehearsal.)

Everyone except for number one, gets a back seat view of  the  course  prior  to  test. Number 2 rides with number 1, Number 3 rides with Number 2 and so  on.   Everyone  else  came  early  and  walked  the  course  which never  changes  for  Foreign  Drivers.   Who knew?  I was the only one who didn’t know the course by heart. 

It was an interesting Road Test that focused on some Japanese rules different than North  American Driving Rules.  For example, turn from inside right lane to far left lane.  Not the closest inside lane as in North America.  Also the course has two obstacles that look worse than reality.  Have you seen the San Francisco road they call the world's most crooked?   Yes, much worse than that.

Driving  Candidates  have  the  option  of   testing  in   a   standard  or  automatic  transmission  style  vehicle. The automatic transmission vehicle  was  my  selection  and  the  ease  of   driving  with  both  hands  on  the  wheel  made  little  difference.  Everyone fails the first time.  This  seems  to  be  the  most   important  rule  not  found  in  the  guide  sheets  handed  out  by  the  Test  Center.    Three out of   15 pass Wednesdays’ Test.  I failed  because  the  Testing  Officer’s  Hat  flew  off  when  a  tire   ran  over  the  curb  and  the  car  bounced.  (Remember the crooked road.  It got me.)

I  hung  my head  and  listened to  the  Policeman's  lecture  to  the  twelve  “losers.  It  was  well  presented  and  covered  every  weak  area  of   each  candidate.  It  lasted  half  an hour and  the attentive  candidates benefited  from  the  wisdom.  After  the  lecture,  we  were  all  handed  the  next  test  appointment.  That’s  right,  the  next  day,  Thursday  at  8  a.m.

We  actually arrived  at  the  course  the  next  morning  about 7 a.m.  Camaraderie began amongst the disappointed testers and a tenacious foreign community began during the examination process.  We walked the course together, reviewed course maps, discussed common mistakes, and watched the early birds (keeners  in  the  lineup)  take  their  test. 

Riding  in  the  back  seat  was  educational  if  not  intimidating  and  frightening.  The  young  man  taking  his  test  was  intensely  nervous  and  drove  dangerously.  His test finalized with a minor accident.  He  hit  a  plastic  hanging  pole  meant  as  an  obstacle  for   trucks.  It  was  a  relief  to  make  it  back  to  home  base  in  one  piece  and  start  my  test.

The results were much better my second test.  The crooked road seemed far less difficult.  The  rules  were  easier  to  follow  once  understood  and  the  course  didn’t  present  any  surprises.  The Testing Officer congratulated me on a clean test.  In fact, the individuals who became  friends  during the three day ordeal faired well.  Only Kaoru, Mohamed and I received a Japanese Driving License.  Kaoru is Japanese but we gave her honorary Foreigner  status  because  of   her  time  in  Seattle  and  positive  attitude.  It’s  less  expensive  and  more  convenient  to  study  driving  abroad,  especially  when spending   extended  time  in   the  United States. It was Mohamed's and my second try, Kaoru’s third.    

Mohamed is from Afghanistan
He said "driving through Afghanistan villages is dangerous because of children and  goats. Old  mines  left  on  mountain  roads  from  Civil  Wars  can  also  be  a  hazard."

It was a taxing and time consuming experience. 
However, we are better drivers and this is especially true for Japanese Roads.  
The system works.  It makes Japan a safer place to drive.  Just as importantly, the test allowed us to make  new  friends and we  have  another  terrible  license  picture  to  show  for  the  experience.

Post Script:  Kaoru actually took a job with our firm and was an integrate part of my Consulting Team for five years before leaving to start a family.  Mohamed and I did not keep. Things did not get better for Afghanistan since 1999 and we all hope he remains safe.  Much of my time is spent on the road in Japan and lessons learned at the Examination Park remain sincerely appreciated.


Sensational Service and Lots of Fun at the Trattoria Della Lanterna Magica

My “much better half” once again researched through the Tabelog Web Site & found a terrific option for Italian Dining in Tokyo. The Trattoria Della Lanterna Magica comes well recommended by Japanese Bloggers (on Tabelog) who encourage carefully planned reservations and readiness for a great time. We called on Monday for a Friday Reservation Slot. The only available table allowed a 9 PM dinner appointment. This improved to a 7:30 in the evening when Kurashima San (the Lanterna magica Manager) called my wife’s cell phone inviting us to come earlier. We were beneficiaries of cancellations. The personal touch continued from our arrival where we were enthusiastically greeted & escorted to our table until exiting the home like structure to a taxi ordered by the restaurant.

The tables are well bused, waiters are knowledgeable of wines (we went off the menu) & recommended daily specials were a universal hit. We asked our waiter to assemble Assorted Antipasto from a fresh list promoted on a color chalk board & presented at our table. It was the best part of the evening as the vegetables, shell fish and spiced fresh fish combinations worked well with a Sicilian Barocco Avide. (This lovely red wine was hard earned after a serious week treading water in the Ebb & Flow of Tokyo Business.) The thick pasta made fresh at the tavern, Borchini Risotto and Spicy Grilled Chicken Diavola were memorably delicious. My Lady adds the caveat that most dishes sampled edged to the salty side of the scale. She feels it’s a conscious strategy to encourage wine and beer sales. (That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.)

The menu can be better enjoyed shared as waiters offer everyone the option of splitting orders. Dividing & parceling out food is natural to Japanese Diners and the Trattoria efforts were welcomed by most of our neighbors. You will be aware of other diners at the Tavern. The nicely decorated architecture creates a natural sound chamber that resonates thru your bones. As the evening progressed with wine induced levity, most people found themselves raising voices to unusual levels when simply talking to friends & colleagues at their table. “Did I say it was loud?” It’s a trendy place well hidden in Kamiosaki a short cab ride from Meguro Station. The Trattoria Della Lanterna Magica customers were ready for a good time and dressed up for the occasion. It’s frequented by groups of friends, business colleagues and families. (We didn’t see any children joining the late night restaurant crowd.)

Executive Summary: At the Trattoria Della Lanterna Magica you enjoy top class service comparable to the best restaurants anywhere, delicious selections prepared slightly on the salty side, and a more than adequate wine cellar. Be prepared for enough NOISE to cloak any delicate conversation. The Homey and Classy Tavern is located in the well healed urban community of Kamiosaki near Meguro Station. Prices reflect the high rent district. We will select and purchase wine from the published menu rather than leave it to the Sommelier next time as we don’t have an unlimited budget. “Que sera sera.”

Trattoria Della Lanterna Magica http://www.lanternamagica.jp/


Try the Other Side of Yokohama China Town

We’ll give credit where it is due. Thank you once again to Tabelog for an excellent assessment and recommendation. (Tabelog is a Japanese Site where registered members write serious restaurant critiques. My foxy bride likes their track record.) We found the Ban Rai Tei located near the Market Street (Shijo Dori) at the outer circles of Yokohama China Town through Tabelog and it was a hit.

The Restaurant has a long history & originated as a noodle house specializing in takeout meals. They continue to offer this service but we enjoyed their quick and efficient service while sitting down in their six table restaurant. It reminds me of a large kitchen with simple décor (a clock, photos of celebrity customers including Baseball Legend Shigeo Nagashima and some simple statues.) The restaurant and washroom are noticeably clean and servers are neat and tidy. It’s a great place to simply eat great food and move on to your next weekend adventure.

The Tabelog Blog and Restaurant Boast the “Best” Shanghai Style Chow Mein and Xialongbao (Juicy or Soup Dumplings). Both were delicious but expect tasty meat without the flavorful juice and soup you experience with the Peking Style Dumplings. Vegetable lovers won’t go wrong with the stir fried assortments, and the sweet and sour pork (Subuta) made my day. Our meal was completed with a large pot of Excellent Jasmine Tea. An Executive Summary for the Ban Rai Tei would read “fine food at a convenient location, away from the tourist rush, and at affordable prices.”

Tabelog                    http://r.tabelog.com/ (Japanese only)


Another Faux Pas Gaijin? (Thank Goodness for Forgiving Japanese Friends & Neighbors)

After more than two decades in Japan, this humble (red faced) Expatriate Canadian stumbles through matters of etiquette and culture. Until my recent marriage to my Japanese Wife, I wandered obliviously from one faux pas to another, while my Japanese Colleagues, Neighbors and Friends turned the other cheek to generously excuse my transgressions. This simple but important “perk” ceased to exist, as not only does my lovely better half hold up a mirror of truth, but my once forgiving “tomodachi” now feel that “I should know better.”

My Japanese Linguistic Skills are elementary but functional. They’ve been easily eclipsed and sometimes ridiculed by my soul mate who interprets English to Japanese simultaneously. As part of the community we take our turn cleaning up after the Garbage is removed by the City. This is often a chance to meet members of the Community who enjoy the opportunity to meet a diligent foreigner ready to meet civil duties with a broom and dust pan. One elderly woman who stopped to observe my efforts asked “what are you doing”? My reply was that I was the “gomi no tantosha” and she seemed suitably impressed. My wife informs me that my role did not warrant this lofty title suitable to authorities at the City Hall, but offered “gomi toban” (clean up turn person) as a better alternative.

To decorate the walls of our new home, I had several recent photos of our family framed by friends at one of the local US Military Bases. The lovely thick black frames give the photos a classy look. My father in law received my daughters’ photo taken at her 7-5-3 (Shichi-Go-San) Shinto Blessing Ceremony. He was horrified and questioned me as to “how my daughter would allow you to do such a thing.” Apparently the black frame is only suitable to pictures of deceased loved ones, and are established from time of one’s funeral. We have a house full of family photos framed in dark wood. This must creep out friends when they come over for wine and cheese. No good deed goes unpunished.

It gets worse. We live near Kuji Station which is only a few 100 meters from one of the largest cemeteries (Ohaka) found in Greater Tokyo. Thus flower shops stock various plants suitable to the setting of a family crypt. Some have the loveliest colors and fragrance. Two weeks ago, my wife returned from grocery shopping and literally gasped when she saw the fine bouquet placed on our mantle. To make matters worse, they were positioned near a photo of me running in the Las Vegas Marathon. She removed them immediately and admonished me for the bad omen. When will I ever learn?


Jim Takada’s Top Five Tokyo Restaurants

I first met Hajime (Jim) Takada 20 Years ago at a business meeting in San Francisco. He was a young executive at a fast growing Orthopedic Medical Device Company called Nippon Sigmax. His enthusiasm and linguistic skills impressed my clients who were looking for a Japanese Distributor for their popular Splinting and Casting Material. A Distribution Agreement was soon initiated and the project has continued profitably for both companies.

Outside of his talent for business and enviable personal skills, Jim has had the capacity to leverage extracurricular activities to create exciting opportunities. His Tennis Skills took him from a Tennis Academy in Kyoto where he grew up with his wife, a Former Pro Tennis player and Olympian, to University in California on Tennis Scholarship, and his expertise was not lost on Orthopedic Surgeons who enjoyed playing with him. Tennis evolved to golf, and business mixed with pleasure has been enjoyed by Mr. Takada from St. Andrew's to Pebble Beach.

Athletic aptitude aside, what makes Jim truly exceptional is his knowledge of wines and terrific locations to dine throughout Japan. Surgeons, Business Colleagues and good friends contact Jim when selecting wine or a venue is important. Jim's admitted feeling pressured as expectations for his recommendations have reached extreme levels. We've added to the load by requesting a Top Five List of Tokyo Restaurants and were gratified to be able to share with those who kindly view our Blog.

Jim is one of my best friends and his family attended our Wedding Reception just a few months ago. We’ve sampled many a vintage or brew since our first meeting in the City by the Bay. He’s my resource for information about Restaurants in Tokyo and almost everywhere else he leaves his foot prints. He is a first rate gentleman anyone would be fortunate to meet. Here are Jim Takada’s recommendations with a surprise found in Yamanashi Prefecture West of Tokyo:

1. Kikuura (Japanese, authentic, Shinjuku) http://www.kikuura.com/1f/index.html

2. La Scogliera (Italian, seafood, Aoyama) http://www.la-scogliera.com/

3. Specchio (Italian, Toscana, Yotsuya) http://www.specchio-yotsuya.co.jp/

4. Kurosawa (Japanese, soba, Nagata-cho) http://www.9638.net/nagata/index.html

5. La Cueillette (French, bistro at vineyard, Yamanashi) http://www17.plala.or.jp/Cueillette/

My wife and I look forward to trying out these exciting options. We’ll let you know how it goes as we knock them off one at a time. My sincere thanks goes out to Jim Takada who we hope will give us a Top 5 Wine Suggestion List in the future.

Nippon Sigmax Co., Ltd. http://www.sigmax.co.jp/english/

Jim is the good-looking gentleman on the left:

Amalfi MODERNA Across from Tokyo Station’s North Exit

With the luxury of an hour and half to review Meeting Preparation Material and a need for a coffee, I ventured to the OAZO Building across from the North Gate of Tokyo Station. There’s a terrific book store (Maruzen) throughout the first and the fourth floors of the OAZO Building, but the venue also offers several restaurant options.

Amalfi MODERNA had plenty of empty tables and was open throughout the afternoon. The menu also offered a Gelato/Coffee set that was enticing. The Service in the small Café was courteous and fast. I was seated by an Italian Gentleman open to conversation and served by an equally friendly Japanese Waiter. The desert and espresso were very well presented and truly hit the spot. Total for the set with tax was 1000 Yen. The Amalfi Group advertises five other restaurant locations that will be worth a try.

Marunouchi Oazo (Japanese only) http://www.marunouchi.com/oazo/index2.html

Maruzen Bookstore@Marunouchi http://www.maruzen.co.jp/corp/shop/marunouchi.html

Amalfi MODERNA (Japanese only)


Recruitment & Retention is A Never Ending Challenge for Foreign Companies in Japan

Interviews with Multi-National Expatriate Executives in Japan eventually come around to Recruitment and the difficulty of hiring & retaining Excellent Japanese Employees. Small foreign businesses in Japan fair no better with less attractive resources. We’ve had various degrees of success bringing in Employees thru referrals, newspaper ads and direct solicitation when situations and opportunity present themselves.

Our batting average improved when we starting working with a Web Site Based Recruitment Firm called Career Cross. The Site Targets Bilingual Japanese Job Seekers and offers prospective employers the option to Post Advertisements and send direct interview offers to candidates listed in the extensive Career Cross Data Base.

Our recent advertisement for a Project Coordinator Position resulted in a record number of quality applications. Our experience confirms that difficult economic times are favoring employers in Japan. For the first time we had the luxury of interviewing candidates interested and motivated by our application rather than trying to sell a position by emailing offers for interviews to someone in the Career Cross Data Base. We ultimately faced the enviable problem of having to make the difficult selection from a talented and motivated group of people qualified for our employment short list.

Finding Career Cross was a major step in creating a model for successful searches for employees. Some other effective and time saving practices learned over the years when hiring in Japan include: telephone interviews to confirm English Ability, job specific translation tests that can be offered after a telephone interview and administered thru email, and finally face to face interviews conducted by both Japanese & English Speakers. As Professional Japanese is an acquired skill; an experienced interviewer is essential to determine a candidate’s ability to articulate in a formal business setting. At the end of the day, our Consulting Team admits that when selecting people, it’s often “better to be lucky than good.”

Our positive experience with the Career Cross Recruitment Web Site can be largely attributed to Mr. Justin Kay, the Senior Sales Representative who takes care of our account. His follow up and over the top assistance has made all the difference.

Mr. Kay agreed to survey his colleagues and some clients to assemble a Top 5 List of Considerations for Foreign Companies hiring Japanese Nationals. We hope you enjoy his perspective:

1. Focus on job content not language skills - The best Japanese professionals don't speak English and don't want to.

2. Inquire about how they were managed and how they were evaluated - Good workers had good managers. Bad workers usually had bad managers.

3. Give projects/assignments - See how they work, some Japanese are horrible at interviewing but great at working.

4. Have a detailed job description - Most companies don't. Make applying easy for candidates, as Japanese read carefully, have lots of input about the job.

5. If you are interviewing, and cannot speak completely fluent Japanese, have an interpreter, from an OUTSIDE company present - The interpreter's job is to interpret, not make judgments. Your "right hand man/woman" should be taking notes on answers not trying to bang out translation. Worst yet, they may not translate everything said!

CareerCross http://www.careercross.com/en/